There we were, me and Cousin Marvin, standing in this white lady's garage holding up a Klan robe. Couldn't have been anything else. Real long, solid white except for an emblem over the heart. Had the hood, too. Pointy with the face masked except for eye holes.
"Wonder what size it is." Marvin turned the robe inside out, searching for a tag.
"Probably one size fits all," I said. Part of me wanted to move closer to get a better look at the thing, but my smarter part didn't want to be anywhere near it.
This all got started 'cause Marvin loves to play tour guide. I'd found him in the middle of this group of women from Russia, or someplace like that, when I got off the bus from Manhattan. He's got that down pat, playing like he's a local authority, like he wasn't just waiting for somebody to get off the jitney. Well, these women were chattering away. All excited about spending the weekend in the Hamptons and shopping at this big outlet behind the bus stop. Marvin looked like he was too, pointing out where to get the best deals.
"Dasvidaniya," he said, sending the women off and pumping my hand at the same time.
"You speak Russian now?"
"You know me, Danny." Marvin shrugged. "I know how to make it."
He sure does. Knows how to take care of himself. Not like me. I hold it all inside and everybody knows that's no good. Sometimes I wish I had more of Marvin's spunk. He's still working seven days a week. I'm retired.
I stepped back to get a better look at him. He always had good posture. He's what you call regal even in jeans and his Fog Happens T-shirt. His kinky hair sticking out the back of his red baseball cap was gray like mine. I wondered if Marvin was worried about threats out here on the East End, but I wasn't talking about what happened to me in the City.
Marvin insisted on carrying my bag to his black pick-up and looked straight at me after he stowed it in the back. "You all right, Danny?"
I looked down at my bare arm where my watch used to be. Didn't tell him I'd been mugged. What's that those punks said? "You won't need it back in Africa." Thought that kind of talk went out with the twentieth century. Now here it was again. Right outside Citarella's.
I wasn't going to mention it to Marvin, though. If I did, he'd make me do something about it. Like all those years ago when we first came up to New York from Charleston. Crooked landlord took my deposit then turned around and rented the apartment to somebody else. Until Marvin backed me up. That fellow never knew what hit him. But... what did I do the other night out on the sidewalk? Nothing. Couldn't hardly stand to think about it.
Marvin pulled out onto Beach Road, driving nice and slow. When we were young his driving made you sweat. My wife used to say you could lose five pounds just by being in the car with him, but that day he took his time cruising down the winding country roads admiring the cantaloupes and peaches at the farm stands. I thought we were going to a wine tasting but he saw a sign for Rose's Cottage and turned off the road onto a long path. It was dirt but not rutted and the grass was cut real nice on either side.
"Is this the winery?" I said. I wanted to have a sip some place with a cool breeze and no problems.
Marvin rolled up his window so the sandy Long Island dust couldn't get at us inside the cab of his truck. "Let's check out this yard sale first," he said. "I love these things."
The driveway curved around a big weeping willow and ended under a chestnut tree across from a neat clapboard farmhouse where an old woman was sitting on the porch. Stuff, looked like junk if you ask me, was laid out on the lawn all around the house. A squat garage sat off to the side. Its doors were wide open and we could see it was chock full of stuff too. Marvin parked the truck in the shade and nodded at this sweet-faced lady who was running the whole thing.
I tell you, he was like a kid in a candy store. Had to try everything. Picked up a scythe and swung it around like he was cutting grass the old way. Studied the cups and saucers from this old chipped-up tea set. Sat down in every single rickety chair there was like this was a furniture showroom. The few other people who were still there were doing the same thing. Didn't look to me like anybody was buying anything, just reliving the past.
"You always find the best stuff tucked away," he said, walking over to the garage. "I like to see what folks hold on to."
The place smelled a little musty but Marvin was enjoying himself, examining every little knick-knack like it was something special. I didn't know he was corny like that.
"Marvin, isn't it time for lunch?"
He was busy rifling through what looked like a stack of tablecloths over in the corner. He didn't answer, so I started walking out toward the sunshine.
"What do we have here?" I heard him say but didn't turn around. Like I said, I didn't find junk all that interesting. "Danny, check this out."
"Can we eat it?" I said, barely looking over my shoulder.
"Shee-it." I'd forgotten how he could make a cuss word sound like music.
Now, my neck always stiffens up on me when something bad's coming. Standing there looking at that robe made my neck hard as a rock. I rubbed at it and tried to calculate the distance between where we were and Marvin's truck.
"Handmade With Love." He'd found a white cotton sewing tag joined to the robe along one of the inner seams. There was a small rose embroidered in tight red and blue stitches on the tag.
"Rose's Cottage?" I said.
Marvin pointed his index finger at me and cocked his thumb. "Bingo." Seemed to me he could have found a better way to say yes. He put the robe and hood back over in the corner and walked toward me. "Time to go, don't you think?"
"Been time," I said.
He stepped away from the back but he just couldn't stop himself from picking up a couple of appliquéd bedspreads from a table near the front of the garage. They had the same white sewing tags on their undersides.
"At least Rose didn't limit herself," he said.
"There you are." We looked up and saw the lady who was running the sale coming into the garage with a young girl who had to be her daughter. She looked just like her. "My mom was very talented in her youth," the lady said. "She could make anything."
"So I see," said Marvin.
"You won't find better needlework, sewing, you name it," she continued. "Rose took real pride in her work."
The lady's daughter walked over to the back corner where Marvin had been. "I want to learn how to sew like in the olden days," she said.
Her mother rolled her eyes. "The olden days. A lot of these things weren't made that long ago."
The girl pulled out a couple of embroidered pillowcases and tucked them under her arm.
"Don't pull that stuff out unless you're going to use it," said her mother. "Somebody might want to buy it."
She turned and smiled at me and Marvin like a friendly saleswoman does. She was smiling at us when her daughter took the nasty hood from the stack. She was smiling and waving goodbye to the last people left out on the lawn when her daughter pulled the hood over her head and face.
Marvin flinched. I've never seen him do that before. He took off his baseball cap and scratched his head. "Does that child know what she's wearing?" He turned directly to the girl and repeated his question, "Do you know what you're wearing?"
I didn't need a watch to know how long it took that nice lady's face to go from pink to red to deep purple—three seconds—but I was in a bad way myself. Felt like I had a big chunk of cinder block wrapped around my neck, cutting off my breathing. Did this used to be one of those Sundown Towns? Black folks must have caught hell out here after dark.
The lady's purple face went all crazy, through a series of violent twists and turns like she was reliving the hood's history. "Where did that come from?" She zigzagged half-tripping all over herself to get to her daughter. "You take that off right now."
The girl pulled the hood from her head and stared at her mother with her mouth hanging open. "It was right here," she said, touching the stack in front of her with her tanned fingers. She looked back and forth from us to her mother. "Grandma made it—"
"That's enough," said her mother, busying herself with another stack of linens. She stood there just folding and refolding her tablecloths.
Marvin put his hat back on and pulled the brim down real low. "What's the price on it?"
"Mom," the girl bent over to peer up into her mother's face. "Mom, he wants to buy it."
"Tell him it's not for sale."
"Mom, he's standing right here. You tell him."
That lady's chin had dipped way down to her chest and even the tips of her ears were red. I've never seen anybody being tortured but it must look something like that.
"Marvin," I said, turning away, "let's go. We're not buying that garbage."
"Yeah." He poked his tongue into his cheek. "But aren't you curious about the price?"
"No, I am not," I said. I was dizzy and real thirsty all of a sudden. "I already know how much it cost and so do you."
He didn't say anything else. We walked out of that garage sidestepping a baby doll carriage and rusty sand bikes. We had almost made it back to the truck when the old woman on the porch had to go and open her mouth.
"Enjoy your day."
I'd later wonder if the woman was senile. You know, like maybe she forgot what she used to sew. Forgot what people did in her robes. But, right then, something in me broke wide open. I couldn't let her pretend there was nothing ugly in her garage and expect me to go along with it.
I turned back around and headed straight for the scythe. Picked it up and just started swinging. It's a good thing I wear glasses 'cause pieces of that little tea set were flying everywhere. I must have kicked that old baby doll carriage hard 'cause it slid down the driveway and ricocheted off a coffee table before crashing into the weeping willow.
Marvin was there but I can't tell you exactly what he was doing. He told me later that I was screaming the whole time. I don't remember that part. What I can't forget is the sound of that old woman's voice. She was standing up clutching the railing.
"They're acting up out here, Cindy! They're acting up!"
Next thing I knew, the old woman's daughter came running out of the garage looking like she didn't know anybody anymore. Her arms were filled with linens and she almost tripped over the bikes. Her girl was right behind her with her eyes all lit up like the house was on fire.
Nobody tried to take the scythe away from me. I didn't stop until it got stuck in the cracks of a white wicker love seat. That's when Marvin put his arms around me. He held me real tight until my trembling slowed and my breathing calmed down.
"Took you long enough," he whispered in my ear. "Took a long time."
Title image "Garage with White Peak" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2017.